The broad question this research addresses is: How do nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord control movement? The aim of this research is to determine the nervous system's control of a little-studied startle behavior called the S-start and to compare it to the model startle behavior. Experiments are conducted on larval zebrafish because they are transparent, making it possible to look into the brain and spinal cord in the live, intact animal. With combined fluorescence microscopy and high-speed video analysis, the activity of nerve cells and movement pattern of the animal will be viewed simultaneously to determine in which behaviors specific nerve cells function. Individual cells will also be removed from the brain or spinal cord to test their roles in behavior. Data on behavior suggests that the two types of startle behavior will be controlled by different sets of nerve cells. However, because the two behaviors are under the same adaptive constraints--they need to be fast and reliable to prevent the escaping fish from being captured or injured by a predator--organizing principles of their nervous control will be similar. By determining how alternative types of startle behaviors are controlled by the nervous system, this research provides a foundation of information on this evolutionarily important behavior. This work has several educational goals. At the undergraduate level, this program brings cutting-edge technology into the classroom and students into the research laboratory. At the middle-school level, this program will examine issues of how animals move with minority girls from communities on the south side of Chicago. By illustrating movement control through the biology of familiar conditions, such as spinal-cord injury and stroke, a specific goal is to empower students to learn about their bodies and conditions that affect their lives.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS)
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Cedric L. Williams
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University of Chicago
United States
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